At the break: What went right for Pistons, what remains to see
Here’s a look at what went right in the season’s first half and what to look for over the season’s final 31 games.
A look back:
1. Greg Monroe: Room to Grow – As encouraging as his rookie season was, there were those who figured what Monroe was when that season ended is what he would be when he came back. Pistons management didn’t buy it for two fundamental reasons: for the expanded role they knew Monroe would have in Lawrence Frank’s offense and, more significantly, for what they came to know about Monroe’s work ethic and thirst for greatness. Even with the Pistons struggling to find any offensive rhythm over their first 20-plus games, Monroe got to the break averaging 16.7 points and 9.8 rebounds while shooting 51 percent. He made himself a viable All-Star game candidate hurt only by the team’s 11-24 record.
2. Brandon Knight: A Worthy Sidekick – Not until an hour or so before last June’s draft did the Pistons seriously entertain the possibility that Knight, commonly projected as the pick for Utah at No. 3 until Enes Kanter’s late rise, would be available with the eighth pick. But when Charlotte traded up a spot ahead of the Pistons, Knight was put into play. And when Cleveland shocked most by taking Tristan Thompson at No. 4 – leaving Jonas Valanciunas for Toronto, the other likely landing spot for Knight, at No. 5 – then Knight was left for the Pistons. As delighted as Joe Dumars and his staff were that night, they’re more enthusiastic about Knight now. Knight fills every box on the checklist, from talent to character to work ethic to leadership traits. He and Monroe are peas in a pod and pillars of the Pistons’ future.
3. Lawrence Frank: As Advertised – Nothing reveals the fiber of a coach quite like how he responds once the bullets start flying for real. Frank’s work ethic is so widely acknowledged in coaching circles that he’s become sensitive to any mention of the hours he keeps. But lots of coaches work hard and the ones who rise to NBA head coach all will dazzle you with their insights and vision in the weeks leading to training camp. Then injuries happen and players slump and rotation choices must be made and decisions come on the fly during games and not everyone agrees with them and things get messy. The Pistons had all the ingredients for messiness of epic proportions with the lockout-influenced condensed schedule imposed on a new coaching staff, but Frank has navigated the land mines with aplomb. Can there be a bigger endorsement of a head coach than to go 4-20 and not hear whispers of unrest?
A look ahead:
1. Rodney Stuckey: More to Offer – Throw out the scoreless clunker in Wednesday’s loss to Toronto and look to the previous five games, when Stuckey averaged 23 points and 11.2 free-throw attempts. That’s the player the Pistons believe they will have – or someone who affects games at reasonably close to that level – as time allows. Stuckey came to the Pistons after two years of low-level college basketball and he endured three coaching regimes in his first four seasons, years marked by churning around him in the lineup. It’s not a leap to accept that the stability the Pistons believe is now in place around Stuckey – a teaching coach in Lawrence Frank who offers structure and a backcourt partner in Brandon Knight who more closely aligns with Stuckey’s skill set – will allow him to flourish. Stuckey had an even briefer preseason than his teammates as his contract negotiations played out and then got knocked back by a groin injury that continues to trouble him. The strides he takes over the final 31 games, and the chemistry he develops with Knight, will be among the most-watched elements of the final two months.
2. The ’09 Draft: Defining Moments – If Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight are franchise cornerstones, Austin Daye and Jonas Jerebko are viewed as two important complementary parts to the Pistons’ future. Jerebko has come back as the Pistons hoped he would: still the same ball of fire, showing no ill effects of the Achilles tear that cost him all of 2010-11, and growing as his offensive game matures. Emerging as a consistent off-the-bench game-changer – perhaps the ideal role for Jerebko – will be the thing to watch now. The four-year deal he inked before camp opened looks like a terrific move for both sides. Daye, on the other hand, has had a miserable third season so far. He’s made 9 3-point shots all season and four of them came in one game, a brilliant 28-point outing against one of the league’s elite defensive teams, Miami. He’s shooting 30 percent overall and 20 percent from the arc, numbers that don’t register for a player of Daye’s varied offensive arsenal. There’s a place – potentially a big one – for Daye in Frank’s rotation if he can shake himself out of the haze. Near 7-footers who can shoot from as many spots on the floor, and in as many ways, as Daye can are a rare breed. He’ll come back from the All-Star break needing to fight his way back into the rotation, though, and to seize on the next opportunity whenever it arises.
3. BG and CV: Carving a Niche – Joe Dumars signed arguably the top two free agents available in July 2009 when Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva agreed to terms on the first day of free agency. Their first two seasons weren’t happy or productive ones for anyone on the roster, for the most part, and Gordon and Villanueva suffered through the tumult. Both were eager for a fresh start under Lawrence Frank and the new era of the Gores ownership. Villanueva’s season has been a washout so far, a mysterious ankle injury that cropped up out of nowhere in training camp keeping him sidelined. He’s recently expressed optimism that a return could be imminent. Especially with Austin Daye struggling, Villanueva’s perimeter shooting figures to give him an opening to a key role. Gordon has had recent moments since returning from a shoulder injury that indicate he could be finding himself in a sixth-man role he perfected in Chicago. It’s likely that the Stuckey-Knight backcourt combination is in place more or less permanently, which should help define Gordon’s role. At his best, nobody on the roster can score in bunches quite like Gordon. If he can anchor Frank’s second unit consistently over the final 31 games, the upward arc the Pistons began over the last two weeks will have a better chance to continue through March and into April.